Authors: Karl Edward Wagner
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied so that you can enjoy reading it on your personal devices. This e-book is for your personal use only. You may not print or post this e-book, or make this e-book publicly available in any way. You may not copy, reproduce, or upload this e-book, other than to read it on one of your personal devices.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at:
The White Rose
A Morning Swim
No Road Back
A Sending from Kordava
As Conan flung himself past the stone warrior, the creature pivoted from the edge of the parapet to face the Cimmerian once again. As it raised its blade and started forward, leathery sails detached themselves from the darkness and flapped full into the demon’s face.
Bats. A score of them suddenly. Attacking the head and face of the stone warrior. Their teeth and claws could not tear its invulnerable flesh, but the sudden frenzy of their attack drew the creature’s attention for an instant.
Conan seized that instant. The creature’s back was to the crenel, as he had stood a moment before. Conan lunged forward …
And the song of Shannach ebbed into silence, as the last of the children of mountains went forever into night.
War is father of all things, king of all things; it makes of some men gods, of some free men, and of others slaves.
Frozen stillness, and diamond-bright steel.
Two swords shimmered in the smoky light, ringed by a faceless circle of eyes no less pitiless and bright. A shiver of motion, and the blades clashed together—shattering the stillness with the clangour of angry steel. Then, explosive grunts and gusts of breath, wrenched from the sweaty throats of the two combatants. A hoarse rush of breath and subdued murmur from the circle of watchers; faceless eyes glinted with excitement. Then blade again confronted blade: death balanced on striking steel; patient, remorseless.
The two men who fought here shared little in common other than the deadly skill with which each wielded his blade.
One, who was increasingly on the aggressive, was clearly the older man, and his dexterous swordplay indicated that the long, straight Zingaran blade was no stranger to his fist. Bars of gray highlighted his smooth black hair and closely trimmed beard, even as his handsome face was streaked by a few straight duelling scars. The scars were thin and faded, for it had been many years since an opponent’s blade had touched this face. Burgundy trunk hose and velvet doublet of finest quality set off a lean figure of compact muscle and confident poise. Emblazoned upon his right sleeve was a black eagle—the insignia of Korst’s Strikers, the elite regiment of the Zingaran army—and beneath that, the twin gold stars of a captain.
The other was a younger man—probably of no more than half the captain’s forty-odd years. Withal, he parried his opponent’s sword with a studied skill that was more of the veteran swordsman than the reckless youth. He was somewhat taller than the older man’s six feet of height, and considerably heavier of build. Stripped to the waist, his powerful shoulders and broad chest showed a deep tan, its evenness flawed now and again by lines of scar—hallmarks of the battles and scrapes that had schooled his sword-arm. A sweaty mane of black hair whipped about his cleanshaven face as he fought; blue eyes smouldered angrily from his roughhewn features. He wore the leather trousers of a northern barbarian, and his huge fist seemed better suited to a heavy broadsword than to the thin, double-edged Zingaran hand-and-a-half sword.
They stood within a circle of soldiers, tightly compressed to watch this duel. The majority of the onlookers wore the burgundy and gold colors of the Royal Zingaran Army, as well as the eagle insignia of Korst’s Strikers. Shouldered together with them were men of other regiments, along with a scattering of warriors in mismatched and nondescript gear—soldiers of Zingara’s mercenary companies, as was the youth. About them arose the shadowy enclosure of a military barracks—cots and equipment shoved back against the walls to make room.
Tense faces were strained upon the combatants; knowing eyes missed nothing of the swordplay. Earlier the barracks had resounded with cheers and shouts, with the frantic exchange of wagers and curses. But that was before the two duellists had unleashed a heart-stopping display of slash and thrust, parry and counterthrust. Now the excitement was too intense for vocal expression. Sharing the tension of the duel, the onlookers hung to each breath and waited—even as the two combatants drew upon their limits of endurance and watched for the other to make his own fatal mistake.
Both of the bastard duelling swords had lately tasted blood. A shallow gash of no consequence leaked across the older man’s forearm, where the other’s blade had glanced from his cross guard in a blow that all but tore the hilt from his grasp. But the youth bled from a pair of slashes along his left side, and a deeper wound below his shoulder seemed to have crippled his left arm—stigmata of three deadly thrusts that would have pierced his heart had his reflexes been a fraction of a second slower. Perhaps this leeching flow of blood prompted the thin smile and flared nostrils of the older man, as he pressed confidently for the kill. The youth did not smile, and the wrath in his eyes blazed without hint of the pain and fatigue he must feel.
Again their blades darted, engaged, broke apart. Not pausing in his attack, the captain struck again, even as their swords disengaged—letting the impetus of their exchange drive his blade down and around the other’s guard, stabbing deep into the thick muscles of his thigh.
The youth grunted in agony, lunging backward from the blow. His leg buckled under him. He staggered, barely holding himself erect. His desperate counterthrust was clumsy and without strength.
It was the final moment of the long duel. The circle of eyes burned with breathless concentration. Savoring the split-second of their absolute attention, the officer chose to dispatch his crippled opponent with the blinding thrust to the heart that was his trademark.
The youth had no thought of good form. From his half-crouch, he slashed upward—gripping the long hilt with the fingers of his wounded left arm for added strength. The end of the blade caught the older man in his crotch and continued upward. Poised to deliver his
coup de maître,
the captain was flung back in a welter of spilling entrails and burst lung.
A long gasp of disbelief, then a confused outburst of exclamations.
A man with glazing eyes stared up at them from the barracks floor. A youth with smoldering eyes glared back at them, as he slumped from the weight of his wounds.
For a heartbeat the tableau held.
Then the man on the floor shuddered in a final spasm—his death rattle drowned out in a sudden tumult of excited shouts and curses, rumble of jostled bodies and clink of coins. The youth put the bloody point of his sword to the floor, leaning hard against its hilt. Bright blood gushed from his thigh, but he made no outcry other than a hoarse gulping for breath.
He swayed on his feet; knuckles white upon swordhilt—as his strength drained from him. A pair of fellow mercenaries—almoners bursting with the coins they had just won—rushed forward to give him their shoulders. The youth’s eyes blazed wildly—the battle-lust was still in his heart—then subsided as he recognized his comrades. He sagged against them, as a third soldier produced a strip of cloth bandage and worked to staunch the flow of blood from his thigh.
The uproar abruptly shivered to a hush. Soldiers hastily settled their wagers, anxiously sidled toward the doorways. A low murmur passed through the barracks:
The youth lifted his head and glowered truculently as the circle broke apart.
Followed by a number of his officers, the supreme commander of the Royal Zingaran Army, General Korst himself, swept into the barracks. A short, stocky man, Korst’s blue-black hair and swarthy complexion betokened the admixture of Shemite blood with that of his Zingaran father. That the son of a camp whore and an unknown Zingaran soldier should rise to generalship of class-conscious Zingara’s army was a significant tribute to Korst’s abilities.
The general’s eyes widened, then narrowed, as he studied the disembowelled corpse. He stroked his carefully trimmed beard thoughtfully.
“Ah, Captain Rinnova! Then did you at last cross steel with one who was more than your match?
was not a stroke to the heart, it is true, but you’re dead enough for all its crudeness.”
He looked toward the wounded youth. Under the general’s impassive gaze, those who held him sought to draw back. The youth swayed on his feet, as his friends melted away, but he managed to hold himself erect and to return the stare.